By Anastasia Moloney
BOGOTA, Oct 7 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Colombian police broke up an accused criminal ring that sexually exploited children from Colombia and neighboring Venezuela on Monday, authorities said, exposing the dangers of sex trafficking faced by destitute Venezuelan migrant families.
Arrested were eight Venezuelans and Colombians, accused of exploiting boys and girls ages 13 to 17 in Colombia's poor and arid northern La Guajira province, authorities said.
Sex traffickers prey on desperate families in La Guajira province, which shares a porous desert border with Venezuela, according to Colombia's attorney general's office.
More than 1.4 million Venezuelans have moved to Colombia, fleeing a long-running political and economic crisis in their homeland that has caused severe shortages of food and medicine.
The victims were tricked and offered money, food and shelter in La Guajira in exchange for "commercial sex," the attorney general's office said.
The accused traffickers included taxi drivers, authorities said.
Children were taken to hotels and motels in the tourist areas of La Guajira where they were abused.
They were forced to perform sex acts and undergo violence by customers who paid 40,000 to 80,000 Colombian pesos ($12 to $24 U.S.).
One Venezuelan girl was tied up and drugged by traffickers, and another 13-year-old girl was held captive for a year and drugged as well, the office said.
"The teenager was also beaten so that she did not leave the building," the authorities' statement said.
A boy was forced to wear a wig and women's clothes "to satisfy the sexual desires" of male customers, it said.
Colombian authorities and campaigners warn that criminal networks running sex-trafficking rings are increasingly targeting destitute Venezuelan women and child migrants.
Over the past year, Colombian authorities have found dozens of Venezuelan women forced into prostitution, often in Colombia's tourist cities, with little food and their documents seized.
Under the country's anti-human trafficking law, convicted traffickers can receive prison sentences of up to 25 years.
The sexual exploitation of women and girls remains the most common form of human trafficking in South America.
Most victims identified in the past two years came from within their own country or region, according to the United Nations. (Reporting by Anastasia Moloney @anastasiabogota, Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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